Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Depression Health Center

Font Size

Exercise and Depression: Expert Q&A

Robert Thayer, PhD, on how to make exercise part of a depression treatment plan.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Depression is draining. It can make any type of exertion -- going to the grocery store, cleaning up the yard, or exercising -- seem daunting.

"Energy loss is one of the key characteristics of depression. Some people feel that it’s the key characteristic of depression," says Robert E. Thayer, PhD, a psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach, an expert in managing mood, and the author of Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise.

Recommended Related to Depression

Postpartum Depression: More Common Than You Know

Tina Merritt, now 39, of Virginia Beach, Va., had heard of postpartum depression when she was pregnant seven years ago. But when she gave birth to her son, Graham, she expected nothing but joy as she and her husband welcomed the baby boy who would be the first grandchild on both sides of their families."It took me a while to get pregnant, and it was a huge deal for everyone," Merritt says."I worked right up to the end of my pregnancy and felt great. I'd planned so long for this baby, I really...

Read the Postpartum Depression: More Common Than You Know article > >

He points to exercise as one of the best ways for depressed people to lift their mood. "Exercise generates energy," Thayer says.

Here are Thayer's answers to questions about exercise and depression.

Can depressed people get into a vicious cycle if they feel stressed and overeat and don’t exercise and then become more depressed?

"Definitely. People self-regulate with food, and I think that’s one of the reasons for the obesity epidemic that’s occurring -- the combination of increased stress and depression going on for a long time and people needing to self-regulate, using food and other substances for doing that."

If depressed people begin to exercise instead, what happens physiologically?

"There’s a whole series of things that happen when we begin to exercise. As we get up and begin to move and exercise, there’s a general bodily arousal state that occurs. It includes many different systems of the body -- everything from metabolism to cardiovascular activation, various kinds of endocrine changes in the brain, various kinds of hormonal changes and shifts."

What happens psychologically when people start to exercise?

"It depends on the degree and level of exercise. With moderate exercise, [in our research] we’ve been working with short, brisk walks [of] five or 10 minutes. The primary mood effect in that situation is increased energy. Secondarily, sometimes -- but not always -- there’s a tension reduction."

"With more intense exercise -- for example, an hour of heavy aerobic exercise -- there is a reduction in energy and a reduction in tension. But oftentimes, after recovery [from the workout], there’s an energy resurgence that occurs."

Do depressed people have to exercise intensely to get a mood boost?

"No, it actually can occur fairly quickly. One of the things about our 'short, brisk walks’ studies really illustrates this point. People can think about ... how tired they’re feeling, then get up and begin to walk -- walking moderately, maybe quickly down the street for a short while. Immediately, they will begin to feel differently. As we’ve found with short, brisk walks of five to 10 to 15 minutes, there’s a significant increase in energy. They begin to feel it almost immediately."

"When people are seriously depressed -- with clinical depression, of course -- it may be not as efficacious as it would be for people in a normal state, but it still will have an effect."

Today on WebMD

Male patient in session with therapist
Article
Depressed looking man
Article
 
mother kissing newborn
Slideshow
depressed woman at work
VIDEO
 
Woman taking pill
Article
Woman jogging outside
Feature
 
man screaming
Article
woman standing behind curtains
Article
 
Pet scan depression
Slideshow
antidepressants slideshow
Article
 
pill bottle
Article
Winding path
Article